I’ve been reading through Scott McCleod’s Understanding Comics, a kind-of non-fiction graphic-novel-esque work that deconstructs the art of comics in the form of a comic. It is an aging work, originally published in 1993, and thus has little to say about the advent of web comics and such (topics I assume are covered in his newer books written in a similar style.) But this is largely inconsequential because the perspective McCleod takes is easily translatable to newer and (likely) future mediums.
What struck me however — at least enough to slog out a blog-entry opinion on the subject — was the chapter I read most recently wherein McCleod explains his thoughts on the progression of the artists themselves. He covers this topic as The Six Steps of artistic creation. And this interests me because I think there is some overlap (some convergence) to some very similar ideas from folks like Ira Glass and his “Gap” or Malcolm Gladwell and his “10,000 hours” — both of which I’ve written on previous.
McCleod’s Six Steps of artistic creation are (as ordered by him):
Though now that I write it out in list form and in text it occurs to me that the concept is probably a little less clear above than in the comic graphic metaphor form of an apple (with Idea/Purpose as the core-seeds up through Surface representing the outer skin) as originally employed by McCleod. To clarify, think of the lower numbers (1 & 2) being more desirable states of skill and expertise than the higher numbers (5 & 6).
McCleod seems to make the argument that artists progress though a progression of skill and awareness of their chosen media, first being “Surface” artists, merely replicating (often crudely) the art of others. As the artists skill increases they become better at creating and enter a step where they have a better understanding of the Craft beyond mere replication, and eventually work harder to enter a phase where they have mastery over a broader Structure in their efforts.
Analogous to these first three steps (or last three, depending on how you look at it), the Surface step may be akin to having a fancy camera but using it for taking only well-timed “snapshots” in photography. Or in writing to penning a lot of fan-fiction (no insult to fan-fic writers, as it’s just how it would likely fit into this system) which is still getting words and stories onto paper, after all, just based on the ideas and structures of someone else.
Likewise, a photography analogy to the Craft step would be, perhaps, a clear understanding of aperture, ISO, and then also more often than not pulling a camera out of auto-mode and trying one’s hand in manual-mode. In writing, the Craft folks would probably encompass a lot of writers who’s work (while still fairly derivative) falls into the category of genre-heavy science fiction or epic fantasy tales. OR, maybe romance tomes penned in a Starbucks. (You know who I’m talking about.) And in this step, these folks (wannabe photographers or aspiring writers) are all snapping photos or writing cute little novels, but the quality is often mixed or inconsistent.
Glass’s Gap sticks these same folks (I would argue) on the near side: these are potential artists who recognize two things — a passion for their art in themselves and a clear understanding of what they like — but are still needing to bridge that Gap. Amongst Gladwell’s ten-thousand-hour crew, these are folks who’s time at station is still in the single digit percentage of that total.
McCleod’s break-down continues with Structure. I would guess the photography equivalent would come down to skill with composition and lighting, or understanding the purpose of differing lens glass and sensor variations. In writing, the centralized focus of characters and plot, and the skills involved in tying those elements together in a cohesive way means that there is Structure skill emerging. Someone in this stage could probably get a job editing — not a bad thing, but not an end goal for most.
And then onto the second half of the steps. This is where we start thinking that someone actually might have skill and might achieve professional success. Idiom is even a little more abstract, and in all cases simply refers to managed style: specifically, a measured understanding of style, yes, but also a consistent and deliberate style that emerges in images or words — and probably results in work that is fit for publication and wider public appeal, too.
The two final (or first) steps are even more abstract and muddy, and McCleod hinges his argument that masters of an art form tend to (maybe mastering both) choose one or the other as a starting point for their work: either they focus on Form and become “revolutionaries” in their medium, stretching a chosen paradigm in new and individual ways in the extreme sense. In photography this is harder to nail down, but I would assume the first photographer who did much of anything you look at and go “wow!” would fit into this form. Same thing goes for writers: a bloke like Neal Stephenson comes to mind when I think of this step. Stephenson is an author who’s novels seem to emerge into bookshops and defy explanation, bend genres, and confuse reviewers. Revolutionaries and masters at their art.
On the other side of this coin, masters of an art form might choose the Idea/Purpose stage as a starting point. In photography, I’d guess that anyone who aspires to shoot for National Geographic is targeting this kind of mastery: therein is a purpose and deliberate idea behind the photography (all of it backed by every other Step of skill outlined above.) In writing, an author like Stephen King — for example — churns out lots of fiction adored by many (myself included) but it rarely defies boundaries anymore. It’s good stuff, but it’s good within the mold of purpose and idea.
Back to Gladwell and Glass, reaching these last two (maybe even last three) Steps outlined by McCleod — I would argue — is the same as filling that “Gap” with the crap of practice and more practice, and the same as clocking a whole lot of hours, maybe even ten-thousand, to become an expert.
Mostly though, I just think its interesting how a lot of these artistic deconstructions are converging. They are all saying the same thing: you gotta work at something to be good at something. Funny that, huh?